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Catching Up… with Alan Gross

Binyamin Rose

Alan Gross’s career took him to 54 countries. Most were routine business trips. His most recent visit to Cuba lasted five years — against his will

Wednesday, August 01, 2018

 Mishpacha image

Aside from news coverage, we featured the Alan Gross case twice. On a trip to Washington, D.C., in November 2014, I interviewed his wife Judy (“Gross Injustice,” Mishpacha #537]. When we spoke, she had no idea that her husband would be released the very next month, in the middle of Chanukah. (Photos: Elchanan Kotler, Ouria Tadmor, AFP IMAGEBANK)

C

uban authorities arrested Gross in December 2009 on charges that the equipment for Internet and mobile communications he brought to Cuba on a semi-covert, USAID-backed democracy program was intended to subvert the Castro government.

Gross was convicted in a two-day show trial and imprisoned for five years in squalid conditions, under which he lost over 100 pounds and many teeth.

His case ultimately became a cause célèbre, until his release in a December 2014 prisoner swap between the US and Cuba, resulting from talks that also culminated in the restoration of diplomatic relations after a 50-year break following Fidel Castro’s takeover and the Cuban missile crisis.

Aside from news coverage, we featured the Alan Gross case twice. On a trip to Washington, D.C., in November 2014, I interviewed his wife Judy (“Gross Injustice,” Mishpacha #537]. When we spoke, she had no idea that her husband would be released the very next month, in the middle of Chanukah.

Subsequently, I met Alan and Judy for lunch and a full-length interview on their visit to Israel in the winter of 2016 (“I Never Lost Hope,” Mishpacha #599).

Back then, Alan Gross was in good spirits, but still appeared introspective from his ordeal.

The Alan Gross I caught up with again a month ago for coffee at the Rimon Café in Jerusalem was as upbeat and cheery as anyone, flashing a broad smile with a fully repaired set of teeth, displaying a wry sense of humor, sometimes of the self-deprecating variety.

 

Progress Report

The biggest change in the Grosses’ lives since Alan came home is that now, they have really come home. The couple made aliyah on May 3, 2017.

“It was the day after my [68th] birthday and on Golda Meir’s birthday,” Gross says.

.

Alan Gross’s case ultimately became a cause célèbre, until his release in a December 2014 prisoner swap between the US and Cuba

Prior to arriving in Israel, Alan spent much of his first two and a half years of freedom on the speaking circuit, appearing more than 50 times in more than 30 cities.

“It was lucrative, but I got tired of listening to myself,” he says.

Regarding their aliyah: “It’s something we always wanted to do. I had come to Israel 60 times and did a lot of work here and in the region, including Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, and Yemen.”

He and his wife Judy also served as madrichim on UJA missions to Israel in the 1970s.

“I’m in my element here, and this is where I should be,” Gross says.

 

Work & Pleasure

Now that he’s celebrated his 69th birthday in Israel, Gross hasn’t slowed down. He still utilizes his expertise in international economic development, based in his Tel Aviv apartment, a mere ten-minute walk from the beach. “I jokingly say I’m in retirement denial.”

Otherwise, he is enjoying his leisure time. “My health is great,” he says. “I take walks, visit with my daughter and granddaughter who live here, smoke cigars, and drink whiskey.”

 

An Economic Peace

Gross’s career took him to many Third World nations, including Arab countries, where he says he always felt comfortable. Many working visits to Israel included trips to Gaza.

Before the 2005 Gaza disengagement, some 100 Israeli companies, plus 100 Palestinian firms and several joint Israeli-Palestinian ventures, operated out of industrial parks near the Erez and Karni border crossings. These businesses employed close to 5,000 people and exported more than NIS 1 billion in products. The disengagement, and subsequent deterioration in security, spelled the end of those ventures.

One of Gross’s most ambitious new projects is to design a safe, secure, and profitable supply chain management system for the passage of cargo and people between Gaza and Israel.

“I’m looking for a win-win situation for the economies of Israel and Gaza,” Gross says. “Some people in Israel might say, ‘No, thank you, we don’t need your help,’ but I’m Israeli now.”

Sounds like a Peace Corps type of project, I venture.

“That’s different,” he says. “The Peace Corps was a do-gooder thing. I’m not part of any peace movement, and I’m not a dreamer. I know there will always be people who will call Haifa and Tel Aviv settlements. We can’t do anything about that. My objective is to depoliticize activities where I have an ability to make an economic impact.”

Would Alan Gross also consider cashing in on his name recognition, and entering politics, making his impact that way?

“Definitely not,” he says.

Life after Prison

 

It’s not surprising that Gross would have a special appreciation for the safe passage of goods. During his five years in a Cuban prison, he shared a cell or cell block with some 20 different men. Since prison rations were rarely edible, the men would divvy up the food packages that Alan received by mail and that the others got from their families during weekly visitations.

Gross made a pact with some of his cellmates to keep in contact if they came out alive, and they have kept their word. He has been in touch with one cellmate, now a gardener in Havana.

“I would love to meet his mother, too,” Gross says. “I would enjoy meeting the families of my other former cellmates. They helped sustain me for five years.”

Gross has met twice with another former cellmate who moved to the US, and has also touched base with a third cellmate, now in Peru.

After moving to Israel, Gross also caught up with a young man he met on his first business trip to Cuba; a young, Jewish semiprofessional baseball player who has since made aliyah and landed a job in Israel as a physical trainer.

“We see each other often,” Gross says.

Near-Death Experience in Gaza

 

Alan Gross found himself in many Arab countries during his long career in economic development. He says he always felt comfortable in those lands, except for Yemen, and one unforgettable venture into Gaza.

“The last time I was in Gaza, I was almost killed in automatic weapons crossfire between two rival Palestinian groups,” Gross says.

He was riding in a van with Palestinian Authority license plates, along with Lebanese and Jordanian colleagues and a driver. The foursome was headed toward the Erez crossing back into Israel when the shooting erupted and bedlam broke loose.

“We had to stop the van so we wouldn’t hit people running through the streets,” Gross recalls. “The driver made a U-turn, stopped, left the motor running, and fled the vehicle. My colleagues and I ran out and sought refuge in an empty stone house.”

During sporadic lulls in the shooting, the rival groups would yell and argue vehemently with each other before resuming fire. During one of those letups, the driver sought refuge in the same ruin where Gross and his two colleagues were holed up.

“I told the driver the next time they start yelling, we make a break for the van and you drive us away, and if you don’t, I’ll drive the van and I’m leaving you here.”

The next time the gunmen obliged, the driver took Gross up on this offer he couldn’t refuse, and they made a successful getaway.

“It was the longest 15 minutes of my life,” he recalls. “But every day I was in Cuba, I wished I was back in Gaza.”

 

Return to Cuba?

 

“I’d go back in a heartbeat,” Gross says. “As soon as we can get permission. I have no interest in visiting the places where I was incarcerated, but I would go back to the Jewish community.”

To obtain permission, Gross would have to meet with the Cuban ambassador to the US in Washington, D.C., and if that meeting goes well, apply for a visa. “I want them to know I’m not bitter against the people of Cuba. I only want positive things for them.”

Gross also took advantage of the restoration of US-Cuban diplomatic relations to hold policy conversations with interested lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

Do they listen?

“Some will. I know the on-the-ground implications of policy in a practical fashion. And I know more about the Cuban economy than most people — I had a lot of time to study it.”  —

 

  (Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 721)

 

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